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Independent Musicians Find Unexpected Rewards in Streaming

Early last year, Perrin Lamb, a singer-songwriter in Nashville who is not signed to a record label, started to receive all kinds of strange Twitter messages. Fans he never knew he had, writing sometimes in languages he couldn’t understand, were saying that they loved his song “Everyone’s Got Something” on Spotify.
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Mr. Lamb — who did not use Spotify — quickly learned that “Everyone’s Got Something” was on a popular playlist on the service, and racking up streams by the million. By the end of the year, the song had been listened to some 10 million times, earning Mr. Lamb more than $40,000.

“Whoa,” he recalled thinking. “I should really get a Spotify account.”

Spotify and other streaming services like Pandora are frequently under attack from artists and their advocates over what they contend are unfairly low royalties or failure to pay. This week Spotify removed thousands of songs from the punk label Victory Records after accusations that it had not paid songwriting royalties.

But Mr. Lamb, 39, is an example of a growing class of musicians who are far from superstars — he still has a day job — yet can reap sometimes substantial wages from streaming. The growth of playlists and social media means that an unfamiliar song can pop into a listener’s feed and be heard, saved and shared. Each listen generates a fraction of a penny.

The financial viability of streaming is still under constant debate in music circles, especially as streaming begins to replace more lucrative CD and download sales.

“Thinking that $40,000 is sufficient compensation for 10 million streams is just absolutely tragic,” said Mike Doughty, a singer-songwriter and the former leader of the band Soul Coughing, who has been a frequent commentator on the problems of the music industry in the digital age.

Mr. Lamb benefits from a business infrastructure that lets independent musicians operate outside the standard label system. His music is released through CD Baby, a distributor that charges its customers $49 to carry an album, as well as a 9 percent cut of digital income from stores like iTunes, Spotify and Rhapsody. That arrangement gives musicians a much higher percentage than they would earn through a typical record label contract.

Tracy Maddux, the chief executive of CD Baby, said that last year the company paid its artists $55 million for digital uses of their music, and that Mr. Lamb’s story was not unusual. “We have hundreds of clients that make that kind of money in a year,” Mr. Maddux said.

“There is a whole ecosystem of independent artists that are rethinking the way the business is done,” Mr. Lamb added. “I have friends who make a ton of money off YouTube, and vinyl sales and house shows. There are so many ways to make it work beyond the traditional model.”

“Everyone’s Got Something” was released in 2011 as part of Mr. Lamb’s album “Back to You.” Doug Ford, a programmer at Spotify, said the company’s algorithm recommended the song when he was building “Your Favorite Coffeehouse,” a collection meant to evoke “sitting in a comfy chair sipping a latte.” It has become one of Spotify’s most popular playlists, with more than 1.3 million followers.

After “Everyone’s Got Something” took off, another of Mr. Lamb’s songs, the more upbeat “Little Bit,” made it onto Spotify’s “Mood Booster” playlists. Together, the two songs have gotten more than 24 million plays.

Mr. Lamb said that the royalties from “Everyone’s Got Something” and “Little Bit” have given him “a little safety.” But streaming remains only one part of his career, he said. His day job is working at Sorted Noise, a Nashville firm that specializes in placing songs in television and the movies, a process that Mr. Lamb said has thoroughly permeated his songwriting.

“I’m the montage where the guy is walking away in the rain and the girl is crying,” he said.

Mr. Lamb grew up in Mississippi and moved to Nashville in 2001, and remained on the fringes of the industry there. But that may have worked to his benefit. Since Mr. Lamb was never signed to a record label or music publisher, he retained full rights to his music.

“No one ever offered me anything,” he said.